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Topical Questions

Volume 662: debated on Thursday 27 June 2019

Since I last updated the House, treaties on reciprocal voting rights have been signed with Luxembourg and Portugal, and work continues on other bilateral agreements, led by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). I attended the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg last week and spoke with a number of senior EU figures. Technical and business groups have met in the past weeks to work on alternative arrangements for the Irish border. My Department is preparing for all scenarios in the run-up to October. I want to put on the record my thanks to officials for their continued professionalism and dedication.

The best chance of getting a good deal is to be deadly serious about no deal. Could the Secretary of State update the House on the current status of no-deal planning?

As I mentioned in answer to an earlier question, considerable work is ongoing across Government. All the primary legislation necessary for no deal is in place, over 500 statutory instruments have already been laid, and work continues to ensure that we are ready for that scenario, while remaining focused on our priority, which is to leave with a deal.

In a letter to the Secretary of State this morning, I said that he has a duty to give an honest assessment of the difficult choices facing the next Prime Minister. He will be aware that in recent days his preferred candidate for Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), has made a number of misleading statements about Brexit. Therefore, on behalf of the Government, could the Secretary of State make it clear today, first, that it is simply not possible to guarantee no tariffs under a no-deal Brexit—in particular, can he scotch the nonsense spouted about article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, which, as he well knows, is simply not available under a no-deal scenario—secondly, that technological solutions for the Northern Ireland border do not currently exist; and thirdly, that the UK cannot cherry-pick the withdrawal agreement?

There used to be a scurrilous rumour in the House that when a Minister got advance notice of questions, it was perhaps the work of the Whips Office tipping them off. I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his courtesy, because he actually emailed me his questions half an hour before Question Time—he has always been a courteous fellow, but this morning he has exceeded himself. Never mind “buy one, get one free”, this is a four-in-one question.

In his letter, the right hon. and learned Gentleman listed a number of issues. Because he sent the letter ahead of Question Time, the first of them has already been addressed by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who asked about GATT. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, there is a difference between what is possible and what he may argue is probable, but it is a distinction that the candidates have addressed.

As for side deals and cherry-picking, again there is an inconsistency. I have been asked by the House on a cross-party basis, following what is referred to as the Costa amendment, to seek a side deal with the European Union to protect citizens’ rights, and I am happy to do so, but there is that inconsistency. The House has called for me to reach out to the European Commission, as indeed I have, because I agree with the House that it is right to protect citizens’ rights, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that side deals are cherry-picking and should not be sought.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about technology. He will know that, in the Strasbourg statement, the EU itself has accepted that technology has a role to play on the border. Indeed, it stands ready to work with us as soon as the withdrawal agreement has been ratified. What is getting in the way of that is the Labour party’s consistent opposition to the withdrawal agreement—and that is because, notwithstanding the manifesto on which he stood, the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s true position is that he wishes us to remain in the EU. That is what his letter did not say, yet that is what he actually means.

I thought that, with a bit of notice, we might get a better answer than that. The answers to my three questions are no, it is not possible to guarantee no tariffs under a no-deal Brexit; no, technological solutions are not currently available in relation to the border in Northern Ireland; and no, the UK cannot cherry-pick the withdrawal agreement. Perhaps, since I am giving the answers, we should swap places sooner rather than later.

Let me ask the Secretary of State just one further question about a claim that has been made in recent days. Will he answer it with a simple yes or no? Can the UK secure an implementation period with the EU without a withdrawal agreement—yes or no?

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well, the implementation period was part of the withdrawal agreement, which he himself voted against. He talks of swapping places, but the clue is in the name of the Department: it is the Department for Exiting the European Union. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not want to exit the European Union, so it is rather odd for him to be auditioning for a role when his whole purpose is not to do what it says on the tin.

T2. What percentage of Irish exports to the EU come through Great Britain? If the doom and gloom-mongers on the Opposition Benches are right about the dangers of no deal, does it not make sense for the Irish Government to be open-minded about reaching a new agreement with the UK before we leave the European Union? (911615)

My hon. Friend has made an astute observation. He will be aware that 40% of Irish exports go through the short straits between Dover and Calais. We hear forecasts of delays at Calais from Labour Members, but it is not simply UK goods that will be delayed there; it will obviously be Irish exports too, as well as the many Irish imports.

There are a number of areas in which it is in Ireland’s interests to avoid the disruption of no deal. There has been very little debate in the UK about the impact on Ireland, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight it.

T3. The Secretary of State has just said that considerable work is being done in preparation for no deal, so can he answer this question? Will he rule out accepting any renewed bid from Seaborne Freight during those preparations? (911617)

The hon. Lady will know that this is not Department for Transport questions; this is questions to the Department for Exiting the European Union, and she will know from the written ministerial statement we published yesterday that we have set out a framework. But in respect of Seaborne Freight it is worth reminding the House that it was a contract in which payments were linked to performance, and as the performance did not flow the payment did not go with it.

T4. In Walsall North we like to be prepared for every eventuality, so can the Minister please offer my constituents some reassurance by listing some specific actions that have been taken since 29 March to demonstrate that we are ready for a no-deal Brexit? (911620)

My hon. Friend asks me to detail what actions have been taken; those actions are so numerous that I would not want to list them all, because I am sure you want to have time to go on to other things this morning, Mr Speaker. But I have already highlighted a number of meetings that I and ministerial colleagues have had with representatives of industry, helping them to understand what actions the Government have already taken and what actions they and their members can take for a no-deal Brexit. We have also had international meetings on both a bilateral and multilateral basis. Discussions among officials and Ministers and at Cabinet level happen regularly to ensure that the UK Government and UK businesses are in a good place to leave under no deal if needs be.

T5. It simply will not do: the answers given to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) simply were not adequate. The Secretary of State was given a simple yes or no question; will he have another try? Yes or no: is it possible to have one of those transition deals such as a GATT 24 deal—the things that Prime Minister candidates have been talking about—without an implementation period for it to come in? Yes or no? (911622)

Yes, it is possible. The question is whether the EU would reciprocally agree, and that is what the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) is questioning, as he does not feel that it is a probable outcome. There is a distinction between those two positions; I have addressed it, but I am very happy to address it again.

T6. What preparations is the Minister making to ensure that aerospace manufacturing companies are given full support from the Government in the event of a no-deal Brexit? (911623)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his record of championing the aerospace industry in his constituency; he is a fine advocate of its interests. Working together through the partnership, industry and Government have made a joint funding commitment of £3.9 billion to aerospace research from 2013 to 2026, as he will be aware. Ministers and other officials across Government remain in close contact with the aerospace sector, and we have met more than 100 companies in the supply chain across the UK to discuss the implications of exiting the EU.

The Secretary of State referred earlier to the number of statutory instruments that have been laid to date; can he tell the House how many SIs remain to be enacted in order for us to exit the EU in an orderly fashion on 31 October?

The answer to that question is that one cannot give a precise figure, because as we saw—[Interruption.] I am coming to the precise issue; the number will be around 100, but one cannot give a precise figure because issues may arise such as we saw in the run-up to the March and April exit date; a correction of a previous SI might be required, or as part of the planning for exit certain issues might come to light through the Commission that necessitate an SI. So it is not possible to give a definitive number, but it will be in the region of 100.

Will my right hon. Friend detail the discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the preparedness of British business for a no-deal Brexit?

I have had regular discussions with my right hon. Friend on that issue, and to a degree I would point to the difference between large business and small business. A lot of large businesses have undertaken considerable work to prepare for the possibility of no deal; we have more concern about the extent to which some small businesses have prepared. Often part of what flows into that is the debate in this place, where they are told that it will not happen and therefore the assumption is made that it is not necessary to prepare. It is worth reminding the House—particularly Members who look for a second referendum or for some other outcome—that it is the EU’s decision, to which any one of the 27 member states could object, whether any extension is offered, notwithstanding the position of certainly one of the two Conservative leadership candidates not to seek such an extension.

In the answer that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) a moment ago about the devastating impact of tariffs on sheep farmers in the event of a no-deal Brexit, he appeared to give the impression that the Government would compensate farmers for the cost of those tariffs. Can he please clarify this for the House: is it the Government’s policy, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to pick up the cost of the tariffs that farmers would face—yes or no?

What I endeavoured to suggest was that the Government would continue to support those industries. We cannot guarantee a specific payment, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, but there is a broad commitment to support those industries, as we have done for more than 80 years.

Data flows are absolutely vital for business, for health and for security, and in many other areas, but the problems would be immense in the case of a no-deal Brexit. We heard yesterday in the Exiting the European Union Committee that, even in the case of leaving with a deal, the UK would no longer have any influence over the general data protection regulation, even though the GDPR is becoming a standard right around the world, well outside the European Union. Is this a case of giving up control or taking back control?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about data adequacy and the EU Commission’s position on that. Unilateral action can be taken to put standard contractual terms in place, for example, which a lot of firms and organisations have done. The wider point, however, is that 40% of the EU’s data centres are within the UK, and many of the underground cables carrying data go through UK waters. It is important to remember that there are reciprocal benefits in coming to sensible arrangements on data adequacy, because not having a flow of data would be devastating to many European firms if they were to find themselves unable, for example, to send personal data linked to tourists. That is just one of the many examples that I could cite.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) is absolutely right. The Prime Minister failed in her aim to secure a continuing place for the UK on the European Data Protection Board, which oversees GDPR. Is it not a profoundly unsatisfactory aspect of the Prime Minister’s deal that, in that area and lots of others, we would have to comply with loads of EU rules over which we would have no influence at all?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Within any future trade deal, whether with the EU or further afield, there will always be a trade-off around what access we would get and what sovereignty we would trade. He knows from his time in the Treasury that that is always at the core of the debate around trade deals. In relation to the political declaration, when the debate around medicines and a number of other EU agencies has come up, we have said that we stand ready to work with the Commission on developing good regulatory standards. There is no race to the bottom on regulation from this Government, but there is also the question of what the Commission is willing to agree. It is in our mutual interests to come to sensible arrangements on data, for the reasons that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford.